Bercy Chen Studio LP is an architecture & urban planning firm with design/build capabilities based in Austin, Texas founded in 2001 by partners Thomas Bercy and Calvin Chen. Fortunate enough to speak with Mr. Chen himself, I picked him out to be the perfect candidate for the Creative Spotlight as he is able to identify design solutions and plan strategies to create innovative designs based on environmentally sustainable and financially viable business models. Calvin serves on the City of Austin’s Design Commission and participated on several initiatives, including the “Create Austin” Cultural Masterplanning project. Read below for the full Q&A…
After graduating from UT-Austin, what brought upon the decision to stay in the area and grow your career?
Calvin: There was not much planning involved, I had a job with Richard Rogers in London fell through so I stayed to be close to family.
What originally attracts you and your partner to a project? What elements must be involved?
Calvin: We really enjoy the creative collaboration with our clients. We have been very fortunate to be involved with many open minded & artistic patrons. Having a great site to work with also helps, but I think the fun part is how to creatively rise to the challenge of a project, whether it’s a tight budget, site constraints, or any particular demands, solving problems with solutions that have artistic merits.
Bercy Chen focuses on Planning and developing, as well as commercial, and residential interiors. Is it common for a studio be so multi-disciplinary, such as yourselves? How did you become so versatile?
Calvin: Depends where we are looking at, regionally, domestically or internationally. It is not uncommon sometimes for designers to work on different scales from door hardware up to urban planning, but the economic reality tends to pigeon hole designers. It’s a cliche but necessity is the mother of inventions.
Hailing from Taiwan and Australia, what kind of unique design perspective do you bring to Texas (primarily) modern design?
Calvin: Taiwan is extremely densely populated, one is compelled to be very efficient with the use of space. 50 years of Japanese rule in the 1st half of 20th century also left great imprints on Taiwan’s architecture, urban planning…etc. Layered with Chinese influence, it’s a very rich amalgamation of ideas. Australia has many similar qualities to Texas. I grew up learning about the work of Glenn Murcutt, Gabriel Poole. The lightness of their work and how to exist in nature is in stark contrast to the concrete jungle of Taipei where I was born. I think influences are very subtle things and difficult to pin point.
What should architecture’s trajectory for the future be?
Calvin: It should be multilateral. I always find it difficult and quasi fascist to discuss architecture history in terms of broad movements, like “modernism” or ” post modernism”, as if nothing else is allowed or appropriate for a period. The reality is different ideas and cultural attitudes always existed parallel to each other, and it is healthy to have a multiplicity of thinking, and I suspect it will continue that way. The current approach to architecture is still quite short sighted in general, I think there is a lot of opportunity for advancement in the discipline.
Architecture is a strange art, it’s not like other technology where it seems to be always getting better, faster and cheaper. The world has changed so much in the last 100 years, our expectations for buildings are completely different now. Cathedrals used to take decades or centuries to build, (Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia) but major monuments of our time are generally expected to be completed in a few years, (think Beijing’s Bird’s nest). Architecture is fascinating because it reveals a great deal about what people value.
I think we have the technology and know how and resource to make amazing architecture, the biggest obstacle now is cultural attitudes toward buildings. For example, Bucky Fuller pioneered many advanced ideas which remain largely unrealized in his own lifetime, it was Norman Foster who took the ball and ran with it. Foster designed the pedestrian oriented carbon neutral Masdar City with driverless solar powered cars in Abu Dhabi. In some ways the future is already here, I feel like it’s our own mindset that is struggling to catch up with it. Sometimes it might be harder for developed nations to implement radical ideas because of established rules, regulations and general status quo. you would be amazed how things like resale value, insurance, appraisal comps can stymie innovation.
Do you have any favorite Asian films?
Calvin: I like Wong Kar wai’s 2046 & Zhang Yimou’s Hero. I also like Tsai Ming-liang’s films it is demanding and not always easy to decipher. I’m inspired by art director Timmy yip, and the work of Christopher Doyle. I don’t know if Chiho Aoshima’s animation count but I saw it in Houston once and really enjoyed it.
During the global recession a few years ago, what was that like for your firm? Could you tell us about the sustainability of this development model during that time and how it helped your studio long-term?
Calvin: It was not easy, but we were aided with our diversified client locations, Mexico, Asia & the Middle East. It allowed us a little more time to think and develop ideas, taking on smaller projects was interesting because it felt like starting over again and made us re-think our approach and assumptions.
Austin is a very environmental friendly city and prides itself on its social sustainability. What role does green building play into your work?
Calvin: Green building is only one element of a building just because it is green doesn’t necessarily mean it is attractive or loved by it’s inhabitant. One aspect of our work is finding poetic moments in prosaic green features, instead of having ugly downspouts connected to clumsy above ground water tanks for rain water collection for example, we try to celebrate in architectural ways every step of the process (like the Alhambra in Spain). In our Cascading creek house, the scupper becomes a sculptural waterfall, and a fountain created in the the circular pond below makes a pleasing white noise while collecting rainwater to an underground tank, also prevent stagnant water by solar powered recirculating pump.
I was curious to ask, like a hairdresser who cuts hair all day, mainly has great hair themselves…as a residential architect, is your own personal space quite unique as well?
Calvin: I live at the Riverview residence we designed in East Austin, it was conceived as a series of suspended glass boxes off of two large walls, giving almost every room views to the Town lake even from the private bedrooms in the back through public rooms. There is no gutter, a tapered edge plate create a vertical sheet of water rain screen when it rains. It is partially inspired by the waterfall at Hamilton Pool & Classical Chinese garden’s rain screened corridors to perceive the garden in a different way. There is also a 130′ long skinny vertical experimental side garden which cast interesting shadow on the wall.
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